Newswise — The more heart disease risk factors young adults have, the more likely their arteries are to be hardening, say Tulane University researchers. Risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking have an impact on arteries even in the early 20s.

"We found that age and male gender were correlated with harder arteries, as were high blood pressure, cigarette smoking and unhealthy cholesterol levels. You can not change your genetic risk, age or your gender," says epidemiologist Timir Paul, "but you can change your lifestyle to reduce your risk of heart disease in your lifetime. Diet, exercise and giving up smoking are all important to preserving the health of your heart."

The study, published in a recent edition of The American Journal of Cardiology, drew data from 1,080 participants in the Bogalusa Heart Study. Participants were between the ages of 24 and 43 and had not been diagnosed or treated for heart disease.

In addition to taking overall health data, blood pressure and blood tests, the researchers measured the thickness of the femoral artery in the participants. They found that systolic blood pressure, age, male gender, cigarette smoking and total cholesterol to good cholesterol ratios were all predictive of arterial thickness. The more of those risk factors that were present in participants, the thicker the arterial walls were.

"Our study confirms that the early stages of heart disease begin relatively early in adulthood, even though people may not have any outward symptoms," says Paul. "There is still a lot that individuals can do to reduce their risk of heart disease."

The Bogalusa Heart Study is the longest-running, biracial, community-based study of heart disease risk factors beginning in childhood in the world. Since its inception in 1973, cardiologist Gerald Berenson and his staff have screened over 16,000 adults and children in the Bogalusa area in an effort to understand heart disease risk factors over the lifespan. Children who began the study in the 1970s while they were in elementary school are now adults who continue to participate in the screening process. Moving from a pediatric study, the investigators now are studying aging. Funding for the research comes from the National Institutes on Aging and Heart, Lung and Blood.

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The American Journal of Cardiology vol 95 pg 469 (Vol. 95)